While the Boy and I were dating, I cooked for him exactly once. Dumped a packet of readymade Parampara masala into a pressure cooker with some mutton, and dished it up with rice when he returned from a business trip. “Parsi women don’t cook,” I said in an off-hand way, and we moved on to other topics of conversation.
I wasn’t lying. I grew up in a home with family cooks since my great-grandfather’s time, where both Nana and Mum made the sourest of faces when said cook took a day off, and have cousins who engage a caterer to supply their meals on a daily basis. And, worried that his beloved daughter would have to enter the kitchen, my grandfather sent along a cook with my mother after marriage. That’s right. Other people give their daughters furniture and jewelry. My mother brought along her very own cook. “Slaving in the kitchen,” I was informed by the women in my father’s family, “is not for us.”And so it stood, not questioned or even considered.
The first time I cooked a meal, I was 23 and fresh off the boat in America. Painstakingly referring to my mother’s handwritten recipe notebook, I curried eggplant for my flatmates. It didn’t taste bad. It just didn’t taste of anything at all. “This is shit,” laughed a new flatmate, as I struggled to keep my face composed. I shut the book firmly and put it back in the suitcase that had traveled across the oceans with me. It was the last time I referred to it.
I was clueless. I didn’t know how ingredients blended together, what spice played off what herb on the palate, and which vegetables took longer to cook. Breathing deeply and refusing to be disheartened, I tossed out all written rules and lunged at cooking with my gut. I got creative, I improvised. Rarely measured, and went with what felt right. In a month, my flatmates were marveling at my rapid improvement, and the woman who’d called my food shit was eating second helpings, along with her words. Some months later, I was hosting a lunch for 20 hungry students (who, agreed, will eat anything), whipping up batches of freshly fried fish for 4 non-stop hours, all by myself, and reveling in my newfound skill.
No deaths were reported that day, and from then on, there was no looking back. I fed myself and my friends many hearty meals in the years that I lived in America. When I moved back to Bombay, my kitchen activity churned to a grinding halt. Home claimed other parts of me, and I didn’t care about mucking around in the kitchen when my childhood cook was at the ready, serving up all my old favorites. It was no wonder then, that the Boy realized with delighted surprise only after we moved to California, that his spouse could throw a meal together and he didn’t have to pretend to love it.
The last year and nine months have been a journey of elaborate, made-from-scratch home-cooked dinners to throw-something-together-after-12-mindnumbing-hours-at-work meals. I have ground and peeled and grated and stirred, pureed and sautéed and infused and simmered. Concocted my own potions, and experimented with the tried and tested. Alongside my steadfast mission of honoring my roots, I have expanded my repertoire of recipes, scouring cookbooks and aunts’ memories, discovering food bloggers, and calling my mother at odd hours to ensure that exact taste of home. I have delighted in the heady scents of spices, the delicate notes of lavender and lemon, the more temperate palate of soups and bakes, and the kick of fiery Thai curries. The Boy devours it all like he was born to it, wants dhandar and fish every Sunday, recommends my dhansak to anyone within earshot, and is wowed by all the things Parsis can do with the humble eedu.
I cook for friends. I create for family. I conjure with all my senses and rejoice in feeding people. And today, I take a moment to acknowledge the amazing lady from whom this love of food and its preparation is inherited. Born on November 5th, 94 years before this one, my Granny left us many years ago, but in so many ways lives on. A sorceress in the kitchen and puppeteer of an intricate ingredient minuet, her food—comforting, flavorful, hearty, deceptively simple, nutritious, and madly scrumptious—was the stuff of my childhood dreams, and I am so, so glad her love of the culinary arts skipped a generation and was bestowed on me. (Also inherited were the chubby genes and the ability to be a human pillow that annoyingly skipped a generation too, but never mind that. 🙄 )
I do not aim to match my grandmother’s skill, for that is the stuff of family legend, with relatives traveling miles out of their route for a taste of her good stuff. I only wish to be the flag bearer of her passion for the things that nourish our body and spirit. George Bernard Shaw was bang on when he said “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” And I know he and my mum’s mum are having an agreeable chin wag about that wherever in the firmament they are.
Happy birthday, Granny. In these delicious ways, may I continue to honor you.